Sparrow Review: A Gmail Client That Feels at Home on the Mac

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I’m a known devotee of Apple’s Mail.app, despite its failings, so it’s rare that a Mac mail client will tempt me away from it. Postbox is my client of choice when I’m depending on the kindess (and Macs) of strangers, but Sparrow could give both a run for their money when it comes to Gmail.

Sparrow has been available in public beta for a while now, but as of Wednesday, it’s available in the Mac App Store as a proper 1.0 full version release. The polished shipping version brings with it a new price tag, so here’s what you should consider before deciding whether it’s worth your $9.99.

Is This a Twitter App?

The first thing many will notice about Sparrow is that it doesn’t really feel like Mail, Outlook, Thunderbird or any other desktop mail client for the Mac that’s come before. Instead, its developers went for a much cleaner, minimalist approach that more closely resembles the UI of recent Twitter apps like the official one and Echofon.

In fact, with the message reading pane collapsed (which is how the application opens by default), Sparrow is just like one of those apps, listing your accounts (identified by pictures of your choosing), inbox, starred items, sent folder, drafts, trash and search in a vertical toolbar on the left, and a list of email messages currently sitting in your inbox on the right. As in the iPhone or iPad mail applications, each message lists its sender, subject, the time it was received, and a brief excerpt of the body of the email. Sparrow also supports threaded conversations, so if you’ve been going back and forth with replies, a number will show you how many emails you have in that particular chain.

I really like that if I don’t expand the viewer window (which can be done using an icon in the bottom right of the Sparrow interface), I don’t have to see anything else. I can use the arrow keys to scroll through my messages, archiving, labelling, deleting and replying as necessary. If I need to dig deeper, there’s always the option to expand the message preview pane or just hit enter to see the full message, but the beauty of Sparrow is that you’ll often find it isn’t necessary. In terms of both looks and navigation, Sparrow feels like a Twitter app, which for my relatively light Gmail usage is a good thing.

Everything You Need, Unless You Need a Lot

Sparrow isn’t a power email client. None of the frills like image and attachment indexing and filtering that something like Postbox offers is available here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If what you’re looking for is an out-of-browser experience for Gmail that’s light, fast, responsive and looks great alongside your other Mac apps, this is the client.


Maybe Sparrow’s greatest strength is the fact that it keeps everything contained. With the message preview pane expanded, you can reply to emails without ever opening a separate window. You can drag and drop attachments to the same window, quickly add labels and switch between accounts with a click or keyboard shortcut. Sparrow may not be as versatile or deep as other clients, but by reducing visual clutter and simplifying the email experience, it could help to save your sanity when dealing with an inbox avalanche.

Mail’s Misses Are Sparrow’s Gains

Sparrow does two wonderful things Mail doesn’t. It provides Growl notifications out-of-the box (provided you have Growl installed), and it provides Menu Bar access and notifications without the need for any third-party extensions. I love that Sparrow provides the option to only use a Menu Bar icon, so I can keep my dock clutter free and have the option to receive only subtle visual notifications if I’d rather turn off Growl notifications for some extensive, head-down working sessions.

Gmail for Now, Everything Else Later

For the time being, I’m happy to use Sparrow as a dedicated Gmail client, which is good because the current version of the app only supports Gmail accounts. Sparrow 1.1 will support IMAP email from a variety of sources, including Yahoo, AOL and MobileMe. Even when that support comes, I doubt I’ll ever retire Apple Mail entirely, since it works so well with MobileMe, but Sparrow will definitely be a permanent fixture for all my Gmail needs.

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